Why Podcasting Matters to the Obamas, and the Obamas Matter to Podcasting

March 27, 2015 (Official White House Photo by Amanda Lucidon)

“We’ve always believed in the value of entertaining, thought-provoking conversation.” Thus, spoke Barack Obama announcing a major podcasting deal between his production company, Higher Ground (run with Michelle Obama) and Spotify.

The partnership brings together the world’s leading power couple with an audio platform that now boasts over 100 million subscribers. But what is especially interesting about this deal is the nature of the programmes being planned. According to Michelle Obama they will aim ”to amplify voices that are too often ignored or silenced altogether”, i.e. to give a platform to parts of society that don’t normally get a look in from traditional media.

This illustrates one of the stand-out features of podcasting and how it is different from other media. It isn’t just on-demand radio, it is a whole new genre and creative form that showcases alternative ideas, voices and formats.

People often ask if podcasting is just another media fad that will burn bright for a short while and then gradually fade away. My answer is always the same, ‘absolutely not.’ The podcast revolution is real and permanent. Firstly, it is young people who are leading this change. At a recent dinner for former BBC correspondents, one after the other, the attendees mentioned (unprompted) their teenage kids’ fascination with podcasts, and how the children had coaxed their supposedly media savvy parents into taking up the habit. The young are discerning and unforgiving in their media tastes, and their approval lends the medium durability.   

Podcasts fit the technological, cultural and even political spirit of our times. 70% of people listen to podcasts from a mobile device (according to Edison Research). They can do so while driving, jogging, walking the dog or any number of other activities – which you couldn’t do while watching a YouTube clip or reading an article online. Podcasts also conform to our busy, consumer-driven, on-demand way of life. TV schedules have gone out of the window as we curate our own watching habits and it’s the same for audio.

Finally, podcasts have captured the political zeitgeist, bringing alternative voices to the fore at this confusing and disorientating time. They bring nuance and difference amid rising intolerance and populism. The ShoutOut Network in the UK is just one example of this phenomenon, which was founded “to create a space for young people from rough backgrounds to tell their stories.”

Podcasting is moving beyond being just another form of media delivery. The fact that high quality programmes can be made relatively cheaply and distributed at the click of a mouse makes them a potentially potent social force.

While many leading podcasts (on sport, celebrity news and the like) are purely in pursuit of big audiences, others have set their goals in another direction. They seek to illuminate, educate and inform on subjects that are often ignored. In this, parts of the podcasting world resemble the ethos that underlay the foundation of public broadcasting in the UK and elsewhere.  

The Obamas’ entry into podcasting fits this mould and illustrates why this form of media matters so much. In the words of Barack Obama following the announcement of the deal, “podcasts offer an extraordinary opportunity to foster productive dialogue, make people smile and make people think, and, hopefully, bring us all a little closer together.”